Opinion: Takoma Park got it wrong on the kids’ power-washing sidewalk art

We could all do with a little more color in our lives.

Over the past few months, a sidewalk mural in Takoma Park has become the subject of a heated local public space debate. The mural painted by children during the pandemic is seen by some as playful art and by others as graffiti. After a long quarter back and forth, the city power washed away art.

The sidewalk mural controversy is ultimately about much more than the paint itself. How we approach violations of community rules and how we discuss those departures makes a difference to the kind of community we build together. We think we can do a lot better than the city’s overly strict approach and overly heated tone of neighborhood discourse around artworks.

The sidewalk mural is a product of the COVID-19 quarantine. After the city canceled a professionally painted piece of art in March 2020, a mother in Takoma Park gathered kids from her neighborhood to create their own murals. With latex paint donated by another community member, the “motion walk” featured a rainbow of hand-painted native plants, fungi and pollinators like the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly. The neighborhood also paints an “obstacle course” for kids depicting the solar system.

The mural may not be Van Gogh or Bansky, but it is undeniably fascinating. This is a work of art for children. Understood in its circumstances, art acquires some depth. The mural came together when we spent more of our lives inside than with each other—a time that was especially worrisome for the children. That paint on the sidewalk embodies a sliver of shared childhood joy that managed to last even when forces beyond our control kept us apart. The mural got the kids outside, off the phones and off the screens. In our view, this resilience is worth celebrating, not power-washing.

We sympathize with those who wonder why the parent supervising the art didn’t try to get permission or approval from the city first. But that kind of process doesn’t yet exist for this kind of sidewalk art in Takoma Park. What is on the books, however, is a vague municipal rule regarding graffiti and how it “depreciates the value of the property affected.” After a complaint about the artwork, the city of Takoma Park decided to enforce the rule and remove the mural.

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